For the public good: NEA, NEH valuable investments
Whether it’s the Walton Family supporting Crystal Bridges or Wallace and Jama Fowler supporting the Arkansas State University’s Fowler Center, there is a long tradition in Arkansas of supporting the arts and humanities in the interest of the public good. But not every artist or project requires large sums of money to make a big impact – sometimes a few thousand dollars are all that is needed – and for those we have state and federal alternatives.
But not every artist or project requires large sums of money – sometimes a few thousand dollars are all the support that is needed – and for those cases we have state and federal resources. Two of the most significant are the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which support individual artists, organizations, state councils, and projects across the country.
The U.S. Congress is currently considering a proposed federal budget that would cut funding for both the NEH and the NEA, along with other cuts to museums, libraries, and public radio. In my opinion, these cuts would be a mistake. This is not really a partisan issue. While the NEA and NEH were established under President Lyndon Johnson just over 50 years ago, both endowments have found bipartisan support throughout the decades, including just last year, when a Republican-controlled Congress increased NEH funding by $2 million to its current level of roughly $148 million – or about .006% of the federal budget. The NEA endowment is about the same.
There is good reason for this consensus: these endowments provide important investments in historic sites and museums that encourage cultural heritage tourism; they also advance scholarship, research and creative activity. At the University of Arkansas, NEA grants have supported poets, novelists, and translators, while NEH grants have supported University faculty in history, art, philosophy, and English. The arts are an important part of an educational experience at the U of A and Arkansas’ other colleges and universities.
Highly acclaimed historian and professor, Elliott West, who has received two NEH grants, stated: “Support from the NEH opened opportunities otherwise impossible. It supported a year at California’s Huntington Library, one of the world’s finest in my field, as well as the chance to lead a seminar of five weeks at the nation’s capital, working with university teachers and graduate students in exploring the history of the American West. Together they were an incomparable chance both to gain from, and to give back to, the community dedicated to scholarship and public education.”
More important, these endowments are supporting projects all across the state. One example is The Little Rock Writing Project. This is a network of pre-K through college teachers who travel to regional schools and provide professional development workshops for teachers. They also host outreach programs for children and young adults, as well as a Summer Institute. NEH grants have also supported the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry Historical Markers Project, the Uzuri Project Youth Institute – a youth leadership program in Hot Springs – and a Johnny Cash exhibit at UALR’s center for Arkansas History and Culture.
I can’t possibly do justice to the range of artistic endeavors these endowments support across the country, in our state, and on our campuses. But I hope it’s clear that the NEH and NEA are instrumental in bringing the arts and humanities to both rural and urban communities, providing crucial access points for younger children and students. Federal funds are also used as seed money to get valuable state projects going. A Washington Post article recently noted, “last year, the NEA sent $47 million to 50 states and five jurisdictions, funds that helped to leverage $368 million from state governments.” And, funds from both the NEA and NEH have leveraged countless private gifts.
The bottom line is that these endowments are a tiny part of the federal budget, and do a tremendous amount of good – for our country, region, state and universities. More than likely, without federal support, these worthwhile projects would simply go unfunded. Moving forward, I encourage you to think about the arts and humanities as a public good, essential to our collective success. And I hope you will contact your representatives in Congress to let them know how you feel.
Published in Arkansas Democrat-Gazette June 16, 2017